On the latest episode of Recode Media, CNN Chief Media Correspondent Brian Stelter joined Recode’s Peter Kafka onstage at South By Southwest to talk about the future relevance of cable news, what Stelter’s job is like when CNN is the news, and what the political press can do differently in 2020 as opposed to 2016.
“There’s more outstanding journalism being produced about the Trump presidency,” Stelter said. “There’s also more ... Pick your terms for it, whether it’s pro-Trump propaganda out there, whether it’s ... There’s a little bit of fearmongering going on from liberal partisan sites about the Trump presidency. There’s more of all of it.
“And unfortunately, in this world there’s more of all of the above, that makes the role of curators and of algorithms more important, to try to guide folks to the higher-quality stuff,” he added. “What I would say directly about the last two years and whether the press is living up to the challenges in the moment, I look at polling that suggests the public wants and needs what we do right now.”
But he acknowledged that even though it demands the work of the press, “the public has to hold newsrooms accountable,” as well; for instance, when viewers believe a female politician is receiving less fair coverage than a male rival, they should write to the journalists covering the campaign.
“I read every email from a viewer,” Stelter said. “I read every ... The email’s the primary way that I hear from the audience, although Twitter and Facebook and those tools are also useful. I don’t wanna speak for every anchor and every journalist, but I think a lot of folks read those emails and take those emails to heart.”
Below, we’ve shared a lightly edited full transcript of Peter’s conversation with Brian.
Peter Kafka: Hi guys. I’m Peter Kafka.
Brian Stelter: Hello.
That’s Brian Stelter. Brian, thank you for showing up on short notice. Thanks to you guys for showing up on short notice. Your reward is, if you think I’m doing a crummy job asking Brian questions, you can do it yourself. We’re gonna have some Q&A near the end of this.
Think about your best questions for Brian, and I could theoretically ask for me too. Brian ...
We’ve spent a lot of time planning this out. The main question was what are you gonna wear?
Are you gonna wear a blazer. I said, “No.” And you said, “I’m also not gonna wear a blazer.”
That is a true story. Actually, I texted you and I asked. I was trying to find out if I could borrow your blazer for an interview. You said you weren’t bringing one.
Let’s talk more about clothes, Brian.
Okay, so I’ll tell you what I did. I rode on my Bird scooter — cause I really wanted to embrace South By and the cliché of Austin — I rode on my Bird scooter to Jos A Bank this morning. Got myself a big new blazer, just to be here with you.
It’s an on-demand economy, for real. So I got to watch some of this. I always wondered how you make the sausage. And I got to see some of it today. I saw you backstage and you’re producing your Sunday show. You are also tweeting like a madman. Are you gonna make content today besides what you do onstage?
I’m going to make content while we’re talking up here, yes. My late mentor, David Carr, who taught me the ways of South By Southwest, used to say that what made me different from people of his generation was that I would consume content and create content at the same time. And I didn’t understand why that was different. But I see it now.
Do you think he meant that as a compliment?
No. Now that I’m in old age, I see what he was talking about. It is true that if you’ve grown up with an iPhone in your hand, you are used to doing both at the same time. That is fundamentally different from pre-2007, pre-2008.
So this all ties together, because one of the big questions I have about how you do your job and how CNN does its job and how I do my job and all of us who are writing about media and consuming media and generating media think about is, how do we figure out what’s important on any given moment and really what’s important in the long run?
So today, you’re scrambling to figure out how to cover Bill Shine’s departure on Sunday?
I think it was last week, you had Maggie Haberman on and she said something to the effect of, “everyone gets breathless about every single Trump tweet or Trump revelation …”
We think that everything’s a four-alarm fire, and thus nothing is.
“... and we have to sort of step back.” But you’re in a business where literally you’re on the air all the time saying, “This thing just happened! Let’s talk about it.” Twitter is incessantly about that. How do you balance that desire to go, “This thing just happened, it’s incredibly important that we talk about it right now,” versus, “Let’s step back and talk about what’s happened for the last two years, or last four years, or the last several decades”?
I view President Trump as a front door, meaning he’s a way into a lot of stories. There’s no real way to kind of avoid that in this Trump age. He is generating so much news. But he’s a front door. Once you’re in that door, and once you have viewers and readers through that door, then you can take them in a lot of different places and go in a lot of interesting directions.
An example being one of the trends of the last decade and the decade ahead that you and I have both talked about is news deserts. These growing number of communities where there are not local papers or websites picking up the slack, where they’re starving for news. I used Trump as a way into that story and covered that during the midterms and got that on TV. You basically look for hooks and excuses to cover those bigger stories and those bigger trends.
But just to go back to what Maggie said, right?
And this has been an ongoing thing. It was happening in the runup to the election and then after the election, every single thing Trump said, “So crazy, so transgressive. We must talk about it.” And then there was a debate, “Is he doing it intentionally?”
And there’s a bigger ... But do we cover this stuff at all? And when do we cover what the president says? And if he just said something on Twitter is that a presidential statement? And if the aides are saying later, “Well, he didn’t really mean that,” what is the role of a responsible journalist in sorting all of this stuff out on the fly?
On the fly, it’s very difficult. Right? If he’s tweeting at 10:30 in the morning, and we’re on 11 am Eastern time, we are gonna have to report what’s new. And what’s new is what he’s said most recently and why it matters. I think it’s important to ...
What if it doesn’t matter? What if you say, “Look, it’s literally just something he tweeted, and by the way, he’s not gonna do it and it’s not meaningful.”
So we need to wrap in that context.
“And I know that he’s the president, but let’s think about it.”
We need to say, “The president, once again he’s making a silly threat that he’s not gonna follow through on. Here’s what he said. Here’s why it matters. Next topic.”
I agree with you that we should not get too bogged down in any individual tweet, but the issue with not treating everything like a four-alarm fire is that there are a lot of fires. There are lot of three-alarm fires. We can’t ignore the smoke and we can’t ignore the flames. So I strongly defend covering the tweets as news because they are news.
That said, I do think newsrooms have figured out a much better way than two years ago. I mean, two years ago, I and a lot of other people were overreacting to every individual tweet from the president. Now there’s days where I look and he said something two days ago I never even knew he tweeted it, right? I do think there’s been a much better adjustment in newsrooms in the past year about when to take these tweets really seriously, and when to just mention them and move on. I think that balance has been struck.
One of the counterarguments is we’ve become numb to this idea that the leader of the free world is saying crazy shit.
I don’t think most people have gotten numb to it. I think most people have accepted it as part of their environment and have made up their mind. There’s a new poll from Hofster this week showing that seven out of 10 Americans have made up their mind about Trump. They don’t think any new information will change their mind about what they think of him.
Obviously, most Americans have decided that he’s a liar, that he can’t be trusted, that he’s not doing a good job. And then there is a subset of Americans, about four in 10, who are proud of him and excited about him. Of that subset, half are really excited! The others are okay with him, mildly excited.
I don’t see that changing. I think what’s a more interesting story now is the Democratic race. As much as I wish elections didn’t last two years, I’m glad that there’s something ... There’s a new story to cover. Because the Trump story isn’t that new any more, is it? The revelations. We’re gonna have revelations for years and years and years about what’s going on inside the White House.
Witness this week in the New Yorker and the reporting about Gary Cohn, we’re gonna be learning for probably decades about what’s really been going on inside the White House. But it’s not fundamentally a new story anymore.
Jay Rosen, super-smart NYU journalism professor, talked with me a bit a little while ago and said, “I’m really concerned about the way the Democratic race is gonna be covered.” Which is that every time we have a new election cycle come up, we always say, “Shouldn’t cover the horse race, the who’s ahead, the sort of insider baseball stuff. We should do the big issues.” I’m fearful of this exact same thing is gonna happen again.
Are you guys having that discussion internally at CNN about how you might cover this election differently, and not just because there’s 20 people, but really thinking through how you’re gonna deliver what’s important about what they’re doing and saying versus the day-to-day minutia?
Yes, and I think that as a media reporter, I feel like one of my roles in the next two years is gonna be to keep dragging the conversation back to policy and encouraging more policy- and issue-based coverage. I think a lot of other people, including Jay Rosen, are encouraging the same.
But I think most importantly newsroom leaders are encouraging the same. I think the top executives at, not just the CNN’s but also the NBC’s and the New York Times’ and the Post’s, are encouraging that. I don’t think that’s ... It’s not that issues were ignored in 2016. They weren’t. Big issues were on the table. The Trump campaign was about some big issues, including immigration.
But I think newsrooms are refocusing on how to make sure the debates are about ... Not debates in the literal sense. To make sure the next two years are about policy and less so about insults, right? If we had to choose between covering insults and issues, it’s an easy choice.
Can you show an example of that? Where someone said, “They were gonna rush with this story because this thing just happened.” And someone said, “Whoa, whoa, tap the brakes. That’s incremental stuff, or that is a horse race story and let’s not do it.”
I’m looking around thinking I probably shouldn’t share it, but...
It’s just us.
Right after New Years, a bunch of the anchors at CNN woke up to an email from Jeff Zucker, who’s the head of CNN, who sent out a note saying, “You’re looking forward to the year ahead, thinking about what are the big stories gonna be, we know the Democratic primary’s gonna be a huge story.” The message of his email, which I then printed out because I was so grateful he said this to the whole team at CNN, was cover the policy. Cover the policy.
He didn’t say this out loud. But what I took away was don’t be afraid of getting really into it on the issues and really deep on the policy. Because sometimes in TV, you think about TV news, you think about the 60-second packages that run on the nightly news, there is no time to miss a second package to try to explain policy. And his message was go further, go deeper than that. Don’t be afraid of that.
I thought that was a really important message at the start of the year, before even the Dems entered the race, to make it about the issues. I go back to that memo from the start of the year. By the way, I can’t think of, I mean, he doesn’t do that very often. I can’t think of other memos like that. It was a great sort of moment to say, if I’m not sure how to focus my show on Sunday, and I’m trying to pick between two topics ...
I’ve got this signpost saying go this direction.
... Yeah. Remember his words. I thought that was really valuable.
That said, it’s a 20-person race, or whatever. There is a real story about who’s ahead and who’s behind.
This is my pushback to Jay Rosen, which is it’s silly to pretend that they’re isn’t.
I think it’s important, though, not to let Trump or Republicans define the Democratic primary, and that’s where my head is at as a media reporter. I’m looking for examples of people doing that right and people doing that wrong. I think if reporters frame the Democratic primary as President Trump’s insult about Elizabeth Warren dominating the headline that day, that’s gonna be a problem.
But it’s also ... It’s a problem for the Democrats more so than the press. It’s ultimately about these candidates and how they choose to communicate if ... Right now they’re ... A lot of them are out making it about Trump.
One result of the Jane Mayer story I guess we’re gonna talk about a little later as well, was that the DNC said, “Actually, we’re not gonna bother working with Fox this time around.”
There’s some teeth gnashing and some let’s go for it. Where do you come down on that?
I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised. I didn’t understand why anybody at Fox would think the Democrats would debate on Fox. I have had some of these conversations privately with people at Fox who disagree, obviously. The entire Fox primetime lineup exists to destroy Democrats. The network primetime lineup is more anti-Dem than it is pro-Trump. The more you watch it, the more obvious this is.
When bad news happens about President Trump, when there are bad headlines about Trump, as there are many days, Tucker Carlson chooses to focus on Democrats instead because it’s more palatable to his audience. It is an anti-Democratic primetime lineup. The Fox & Friends morning show is an anti-Democratic show. I didn’t understand why Fox would ever think it would get a debate in that environment.
In theory, though, if you’re the DNC, you’d like some percentage, you imagine it’s a small one, of people who watch Fox to maybe vote for one of these candidates in a year.
I think the Democrats are gonna ... Yeah.
Are you saying that literally everyone who watches Fox News is now an unpersuadable voter? They are just a lost cause?
I think ... No, I’m not saying every Fox viewer is unpersuadable. Some Fox viewers are unpersuadable. But I didn’t understand why anyone would expect the DNC to lend it’s credibility to a channel that demonizes the Democrats every night.
This is the challenge for Fox journalists, right? Fox is two beasts in a single animal. It’s two species, sorry. It’s two species in a single beast. There is a news division but it’s shrinking, meaning it has fewer hours on the air than it used to, and less prominence. The opinion division is growing. The opinion division is what it’s defined by. There’s not another outlet in America quite like that, right? You ask the New York Times, there’s an editorial page, it’s not on the front page.
Because, by the way, the Fox people will say, “Oh, this is like MSNBC. And they’re partisan, and we’re partisan. And we have entertainment and opinion, and they do. And they have news and we have news.” But they’re not the same beast at all?
They’re not the same beast at all. Other than encouraging people to watch as much of it as possible to see that, I don’t know how I can convince people otherwise.
I don’t wanna make it personal because I don’t care much about the insults that they throw at me. But Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity, and the others, they like to call me lots of names. Try to find an MSNBC host that delights in name-calling in that way. Not about me, but about anybody. They’re different species. That’s a fact.
I do wanna ask about the name-calling.
You get called a lot of names. Other people on CNN get called a lot of names by the folks on Fox, by the Republican politics ...
It’s just interesting that they choose to live their lives that way. All of us as members of the media, whether you’re a journalist or whether you’re a commentator, you have to be proud of what you’re doing, you know, you want ...
But it clearly bothers you, because you just brought it up without me even asking.
It’s because I had a reporter ask me for comment 15 minutes ago about Tucker’s latest insult. I wanna be able to look back in 10 years and be proud of my performance and my coverage and my commentary at this time. Maybe he’ll be proud. Maybe those hosts will be proud of their insults and their attacks and their hates. But I don’t know if they will be. I wouldn’t be proud.
Do you over-index in insults from media people and Republican people?
Well, I think it’s because I cover Fox that Fox News has a particular tendency to talk about me. But you know, it’s fine. Most of it’s funny. But there are moments where I wonder, is that a service to their viewers?
But how do you ...
I mean, fundamentally, it’s a disservice to your audience to focus on that kind of fight as opposed to covering the news.
You’re also very public though, right? In addition to literally being on TV and writing about TV and putting out a newsletter, you tweet about your life.
For a while, you were very active on Facebook. I think you pulled back like a year ago, right? You said, “This is a cesspool, I don’t wanna go there.” You Instagram a lot. You’re ... Because I talk to you periodically, but not that much, but I know that you’re having a second kid, right?
We are. Yes, we’re having our second kid.
Okay, and I learned that from a social media post you put up.
Yes. You have to rule these things out, right, Peter? You have to have an Instagram announcement plan when you have a baby nowadays.
But you could not, right? You could just say, “I’m gonna be public when I’m professionally paid to be public, and when I’m not, I’m gonna pull back and I’m gonna insulate myself a little bit from that world.” Some people live their lives that way.
That’s true, but I think that the ... That is definitely true, but the ... I think the media environment that’s been created for us by these social media masters makes it easier to live publicly and to share more.
But why would you want to do that? Or why do you do that?
I think it’s actually a lot more difficult to be private in this environment that’s been created for us. It’s not that we sought to live our lives on Facebook. But you end up developing a situation where that is the primary tool to share your baby news with the world, right? And thus you have a ... My misunderstanding ...
But you could do it privately. And I remember when Twitter started off, it was a fun thing for me to do. It was also really useful because there were lots of really interesting, smart tech executives and investors who were behaving publicly on Twitter. Over time, they either made a big announcement about, “I’m leaving it,” or they just stopped doing it. As far as I can tell, they’re still very successful.
And by the way, when they or their company or one of their portfolio companies has something to say, they can go out there, but then they retreat back to a private world. I know lots of other media people who’ve said, “Actually, the time I’m spending on Twitter, it’s not useful. I’m not making the thing that I’m paid to be doing. It’s not helping me write a story. I’m gonna pull back. I’m gonna ...”
I just saw Mark Bergen, a guy I used to work with, now at Bloomberg, he goes, I’m training myself to tweet once a day. That’s it.
Once a day?
Yeah, he’s ... It seems literally unbelievable to you.
I think I wanna try it though. That’s inspiring. Think I could do it?
Again, your job is to be public, it’s to be on air. But it’s hard to imagine that you being on Instagram or Twitter or whatever it is, is gonna bump up your reliable sources ratings by any significant number or any number, right? You could not know.
It’s interesting, because a decade ago that was a theory, right, a decade ago when I was working at the New York Times, you saw some cable news hosts and television stars engaging on social media, believing that it was actually a ratings booster. And you’re right, it’s not in a material way.
There were poor journalists being told by their editors, “You have to push this out on Facebook,” right?
Yeah. And it’s not ... In terms of ratings, I don’t think there’s a material impact. But there are ... There is still a virality that’s worthwhile. There’s still an engagement that’s worthwhile. I find myself thinking a lot about what are those platforms that I can connect with viewers that are not as much of a sewer as Twitter has become. I find myself wondering, “What can newsrooms build? What can media companies build that’s going to allow that interactivity?”
Because there is ... We both know there’s a lot of value in being able to engage, especially in real time, with viewers and readers. Showing them that we’re real-life human beings and not just avatars on television.
But Twitter’s become such a sewer, basically become such a sewer. And what I mean by that is if I post something about the program on my wall, the top 10 comments are gonna be hateful, whether they’re real people or not. Whether they’re trolls or not. That’s not a valuable ... That’s not a comfortable place to engage. What can we build that’s better than that? Because we need that two-way interaction.
I mean, Jane Mayer, as far as I know, doesn’t tweet. I don’t know that Jane Mayer tweets. I don’t know if she’s on Twitter. I assume she isn’t.
Okay, there I go. I missed it.
But I think we do need to ... Media companies need to be developing those tools ourselves to have those connections to viewers so that we’re not so reliant on the Twitters and Facebooks.
What do you think just in general about that loop between TV and Twitter/Facebook? We were having this argument backstage about sort of the reach of any individual TV news program, right? It’s small. It’s been getting smaller over the years.
Yeah, sure. But my Twitter and Facebook feed are ... Again, I have a very specialized Twitter and Facebook feed, but they’re full of clips of you or Donald Trump or whatever. They’re all TV news. It sometimes seems like if TV news went away, Twitter and Facebook would go away. I know that’s not actually true. And then ...
But there is a convergence, yes.
Very often you will say “this thing is trending up on Twitter and Facebook” and that’s important ... We need to talk about it now, right? The apex of this is Donald Trump who is watching TV and tweeting about it. Then we cover his tweets, which are about a TV show, and it goes around and around.
It sounds really healthy, huh?
Sounds really healthy. If I could get rid of one thing on the internet it would be headlines that say, “The internet is talking about this.” Right? Or, “The internet’s exploding about that.” It’s like no, it’s not.
But there is an inherent value in seeing conversations that are happening in real time. And the best example of the past two years is the day that the #MeToo hashtag went viral. That didn’t have to happen. There were 10 days between the first Harvey Weinstein story and the #MeToo hashtag going viral.
Obviously we know that the name had existed for many years, but thanks to the virality of Twitter and Facebook, it’s a term that we all now recognize and has shaken the world in a wonderful way. That didn’t have to happen. If journalists hadn’t seen it and covered it and amplified it, it wouldn’t have been as visible. So there’s real value in that.
And I think your point about clips over social was really important. Television — I’ve been on CNN five years now — is so ... It can feel so fleeting. It can feel so ephemeral. You’re on and then you’re off and the next show is on. And people, unless you did something really memorable, might not remember it in a day.
Twitter and Facebook allow those segments ...
Yeah. I didn’t see you interviewing Jill Abramson live on TV. I watched the clip. It’s an amazing interview. Have you guys all seen this interview?
So social media allows it to live, right, allows that Abramson interview to live and to have a life that’s much longer, and that is incredibly valuable, but I do think we have a big problem with the comments underneath. I mean, with the ability to discern. It’s the fight over comments that have been going on over 20 years on the internet, right, that they’re not all created equally. And we’ve seen some of us just turn off comments entirely. Others let it be a free-for-all. There’s more to be done on that.
So your average primetime audience for CNN, ballpark, is what?
You know, any given time, 500, 600, 700 thousand are watching CNN. I think the real power of cable news is in the reach over a week or a month. So over a month you’ve got 55, 60 million people seeing CNN at some point in the month, 50, 55 million people seeing Fox news in a month.
There’s a narrative sometimes that even the most popular host on cable news, Sean Hannity and Rachel Maddow, only get 3 million viewers a night, and that’s technically true. At any given time, 3 million people are watching them. I think their power, an entity’s power derives from repetition and being there every night and over time, reaching a big audience.
You think he’s reaching more than those same people that he doesn’t have regular ...
He obviously has. He has a core audience, but then he’s reaching many more than 3 million people over the course of a week or a month, and ultimately, I think that’s where it gets importance.
Or they’re just important because I think he’s helping set an agenda for Donald Trump and various other folks.
Or distracting from Trump’s scandals and controversies and encouraging people to look in the other direction. What Hannity does is as simple to say, “Hey, look over there,” right? It’s a simple as that.
If Jack Dorsey or Mark Zuckerberg came to you and said, “Look, I can guarantee you we can triple your audience with a streaming live TV thing and we’re going to set up the economics, and we guarantee that it’s a net positive, and you can either do it as Brian Stelter or we’re going to do a deal with CNN, but that’s going to be your primary output. It’s going to on this platform. And by the way, by definition, this thing is global. It reaches way more people than a cable news network ever can.” Would that be appealing to you?
No, because Facebook and Twitter don’t have the news credibility and the news muscles that are necessary.
You make all the same stuff. Everything that you do now happens, except instead of — I watch it on Channel 80 on Spectrum? I’m not sure.
78. Nice try. 201, HD.
It’s going to be over on Twitter, and we’re going to have an equivalent of a homepage where we’re going to push it out to give you extra reach.
I am a very small piece of a very big institution, and whatever power I have comes from being a part of that institution. A little earlier today Bill Shine steps down as communications director, my phone rings, it’s the control room. Two minutes later I’m live on CNN around the world. That power is ...
Everything you said, all those things could happen. They literally can happen, technically. You’re just saying you think TV is still more important than those platforms for what you do?
In this particular case yes, but it’s also about the news muscles that Twitter and Facebook don’t have, and don’t seem to want to have. News muscles means an ability to know what matters most, to set an agenda, to prioritize segments.
Look, they can stream, they can stream live NFL games, right? I mean, they’re literally taking someone else’s feed and whatever. But they can do the same with you. They could just say, “Everyone who works at CNN who produces what you do, we’re moving the whole thing over. Just technically, we could do it.”
You’re going to end up ... you’re going to end up being a very bad TV agent later because this conversation ends up pointing out the reality of television news. At least the way I see it, “Let me sit back and think about the last three years.” But what happened to Fox News? Bill O’Reilly gone, Megyn Kelly left for NBC, Greta van Susteren left. What we saw was that Fox didn’t miss a beat. The radios didn’t miss a beat.
That place is so much bigger than the individual people, and I say that because that’s the best example of change in cable news in the past few years. And then that lesson applies throughout the business. The Today show fired the most ... What’s the best term for Matt Lauer? The Today show fired who we all thought was the biggest star in morning show history on a Wednesday morning, and the Today show’s ratings improved.
Yeah. So you’re saying we’re all replaceable.
Peter said it. But the power of those platforms, the power of that Today show platform, Facebook and Twitter cannot create that, at least not today, tomorrow. Maybe in 10 years?
This is the part where you’re supposed to say, “By the way, Peter, you work at Vox Media, and Vox and BuzzFeed and Vice all desperately want to be on TV.”
If you — that’s true. If you had said to me 10 years ago, it’s 2009, “Brian, in 10 years the nightly newscast in the United States are going to have 20 million viewers a night,” I would have laughed at you. I would have said they’re about to get canceled. There’s not going to be a Lester Holt or a David Muir or a Judy Woodruff, and obviously there is, and those shows are remarkably strong, all things considered. Yes, there’s an incredible change happening. There’s no way to stop the on-demand revolution, but I’d argue it’s happening a little more slowly than maybe I would have, myself, would’ve guessed 10 years ago.
Can we just do a poll here, quick? Quick audience poll. Who is paying for cable TV, this audience?
That’s a bigger number than I or Peter would have thought.
I’d say a third? That’s pretty good. That’s good for you.
My belief, and maybe I could be wrong... my belief is that the majority of Americans will continue to pay for cable in some form if the cable companies keep making it better and more user friendly. The other day I tried to watch SNL. I turn on my cable box, I typed in S-N-L, and my cable box didn’t know what I was looking for, and to me, that was really embarrassing for the cable company. If you can’t know that I’m looking for SNL, Saturday Night Live, in 2019, it’s a huge problem. But I think that if the company’s ...
Because you found it. You really wanted to watch it.
But it was such a burden, Peter. I had to write in the word “Saturday!”
Are you cutting the cord because you ...?
I’m not cutting the cord as a result, but I believe that if the companies can make that experience better, then most people could pay.
Do you think the millennials, the gen Zs, the whatever the group below them is going to say, “Hey, I heard this cable box got a lot better. I’m paying for pay TV now.”
Well, probably won’t be a box, right? It will probably be ... it’s streaming on your phone, it already is streaming on your phone. But I guess count me as old-fashioned. There is a convenience to cable that is also, there’s also convenience to Netflix...
Let’s be clear. You were a teenager writing a TV news cable blog, right?
That is true. That is true.
Okay. So just to be clear ...
And my obsession with TV news ...
Outside of the spectrum.
That’s true, but my obsession with television news came from the sense that most of us, we have basic needs for media. One of those needs is to be informed. One of those needs is to be ... being sure of your safety, and in a situation where you’re not safe, to get information. There are these kind of basic needs about media and journalism that we forget about when the president attacks the press and calls them the enemy of the people.
Look at Alabama the other day and all those stations are learning folks about the careers there. There are those basic services that television and radio provide, and the internet provide, that aren’t going away. And that’s partly what interests me about television news, still, is that CNN has many functions, but one of the functions at CNN is it’s a hospital. You go there when something bad happens. We have a lot of other functions too, but those functions aren’t going to go away no matter how powerful Facebook or Twitter gets. You think I’m wrong?
No, no. I like the hospital metaphor. I just don’t know, if I’d run that business, if I’m happy about that. And by the way, this is why and everyone’s ... this is a truism we’ve known for a long time. When there’s a war or a disaster, your ratings spike across the board. And then the problem is when there isn’t that — this is the critique of cable news for a very long time — is that you have to have people sitting around talking in the absence of other news, and then you sort of create stories. Prior to Trump we had the poop cruise, we had the missing Malaysian plane, right? And these things were not crucial. You didn’t need to know about them. You certainly didn’t ...
Okay. First of all, that’s insulting to the people that died on that plane. Every day that plane is missing, it’s a bigger story. I’ll defend the missing plane until the day I disappear on a plane. That is the biggest story in the world.
It was an interesting story.
Where’s the plane, Peter? It’s been five years.
Yeah, and how many other plane crashes have we had since then?
We can maybe debate that later. There is no shortage of news, but I think the thing about the hospital metaphor is that yeah, you go to the hospital when your arm breaks, but you also go to the hospital to stay healthy, right? I go to the Virgin of Mount Sinai for my checkups, for my physicals, right? You go there to stay healthy as well as when you’re sick, and that’s where this misinformation conversation we’ve been having the last two years comes into play, right? Newsrooms in this country, the CNNs of the world, have such an important role to play in combating misinformation, in combating the — to continue the analogy — disease and viruses.
You know, it’s terrifying is to watch the role that local news played in promoting the Momo scare two weeks ago, which then showed up in my inbox from my school, which is full of really smart people and they still said, “You got to be aware of this thing.” Do you guys know about Momo?
Audience member: No.
Brian Stelter: No. Google it, Google it. Yeah.
And to be fair, a lot of this stuff was coming from an actual government agency in Britain and local police departments in Florida or wherever. And then so it’s easy enough for a local new station to go, “Oh, I guess this is a real thing. We got to promote it.” But it can go both ways.
But the question I ask then is what can I do, what can you do to? What can Twitter and Facebook and Google do to help folks find high-quality information about a scare like that, and to discourage low-quality information? There’s so much stuff out there that’s not news, but it smells like news, and it tastes like news, and only later does it make you sick. And it’s a societal problem that all of us have to help guide folks to the higher-quality version of the news.
Let’s fix that in the next panel.
You are a former New York Times reporter. You’ve written a book. You are doing a million different things at CNN, and now you are about to be an Apple TV streaming show producer. You’ve got a ...
They took your book and they’re going to make a TV show out of it.
I’d like to know how low on the totem pole I am.
With Jennifer Aniston.
Yeah, so I wrote a book about morning TV, Top of the Morning, and the rights were optioned by Media Res, which is producing a morning show drama for Apple. I was actually on the set yesterday in LA. I was out visiting the stage where it’s being produced, aaand that’s all I’m allowed to say about that.
What’s it like to be a bigshot TV producer, even though it’s ...
You’d have to ask the bigshot TV producers, but what my role has been is to, in a very small way, consult with the writers and make the show as real as possible. And I cannot wait to see it, because I think you all are going to be entertained. But I can’t say anything more about what the show is. Frankly, Peter, it’s been an interesting experience, because I don’t know how it’s going to be released.
So you don’t know when it’s going to …?
I don’t know when, I don’t know where.
This is not you know but can’t tell us?
I really don’t know, and in fact I don’t think the producers know, unless they’re not telling me.
So March 25th, Apple’s going to finally say, “Here, we’ve got this thing.”
That’s right. The rumor is that March 25th, Apple’s holding their big launch event.
They are doing it, but yeah.
Well, I haven’t been invited.
It doesn’t mean it’s a rumor.
You don’t need an invite to make it a rumor.
That is one of the worst things that reporters do, right? You report a fact from sources, and then I say it’s a rumor.
Yeah. Yes, it’s the worst because it’s one thing for the PR people, and my apologies to you guys in the room, who say, “We don’t report on rumors and speculation in response to a question about actual reporting.” That’s fine, but it doesn’t mean that the reporters have to then quote them, saying this is a rumor.
But you don’t know. You don’t know. You literally don’t know when this thing is going to run, who it’s going to be available to, whether it’s going to be dropped in one thing or it’s going to be rolled out every week.
It’s a mystery, and I can’t wait to find out.
How do you think that that content is going to work? Do you think it’s going to work? Do you think that will be as effective as a regular TV show released over regular TV, over a broadcast or cable, or do you think because it’s something digital it’s going to be a niche product, what we’ve been sort of talking about back and forth about for the last half hour?
Well, you raised an interesting question that I don’t know the answer to, which is will Apple take the Netflix route and choose not to share something that would resemble ratings? And I don’t know the answer to that either. That’s an interesting one, but I think what we’ve seen in this day and age is that a show has the ability to be huge regardless of the way it’s released.
Have you offered them notes? Have you said, “Look, I know you guys are professional TV makers, but I have some ideas for you.”
No, I have not, and I don’t think that will be ethically appropriate. The ...
But you just want to hang on the set anyway. I get it.
I wanted to see it in action, yes. I want to see it come to life. It’s remarkable with Netflix to see how ... we can pick a recent example, Stranger Things I guess is the clichéd example now. A show can become huge no matter how it’s released. That’s a good thing.
There’s a New York Post Story that’s saying Tim Cook’s offering notes for these shows?
There was a New York Post story that claimed Tim Cook was deeply involved in these Apple shows, giving notes and making changes. My impression is that is completely bogus.
I think it was true a couple of years ago when they were doing the Carpool Karaoke stuff, and they were saying that’s not appropriate, we can’t run that. There were a couple of those tweaks there, but you don’t have any sense that he or Eddy Cue, who sits below him and runs all the media is ...
My impression is actually the opposite, but again, let’s wait and see. Let’s see the shows. Do you think there’s too much TV, that we have reached peak TV?
No. People are watching it.
Because people are watching?
Yeah. I mean, eventually someone’s going to say we can’t support all of this economically. It’ll rationalize. There’s plenty of TV for everyone. You can watch literally whatever you want. It’s great. I’m back to making Emily upset.
Emily is a CNN PR person that Peter wants to pick on.
Emily wants to make it clear that Brian is not a representative of Turner, Warner Media, or AT&T?
Turner, CNN, and Warner Media owned by AT&T, right, right.
So you happen to work there, though.
And almost every day, there is a story about one of those organizations, either the one you work for directly or all the way up the chain. I can think of three in the last week that are relevant. There’s the Mayer piece that we were talking about which is involving whether of not Donald Trump actually tried to stop the AT&T-Time Warner merger. There’s the Kevin Tsujihara story, runs Warner Bros., your corporate cousins. And what am I missing from last week? Oh, yeah, they reorged all of ...
Complete restructuring of the whole company.
Yeah. Your boss got a new job. Another one of the folks left, Richard Plepler left. How do you go about covering stories where you’re either directly connected, or at least indirectly connected through the corporate ownership?
Yeah. One of the greatest things about CNN is that we cover CNN and the rest of the company just like we cover NBC or Fox. And I can very confidently say that after the last weeks, when there’s been all these stories about CNN and Warner Media. And the short answer, the way I do it is write the story, reach out to the PR person, tell them what I’m working on, and usually what I say is something to the effect of, “Anything to add?” Because I’m not asking whether I’m allowed to publish this. I’m not asking whether you agree with my facts. I’m asking do you have a point to view that doesn’t ... that’s not in my story yet. And that’s what we do with Fox, that’s what we do with NBC or the New York Times.
Obviously, covering media is inherently meta in a lot of ways, as you know just as well as I. But I have been ... at every point where I’ve wondered if I really was going to have autonomy, the answer’s been yes. And to be honest, the best example is a couple of weeks ago. CNN hired Sarah Flores, who was a Justice Department spokeswoman, working for Jeff Sessions, working in the Trump administration. There was liberal Twitter outrage, but more importantly there was a lot of concern inside CNN. And this was the first time in five years that I had employees at CNN contacting me as if they were whistleblowers, as if they were sources wanting to speak out against our company. Hasn’t happened to me in five years at CNN. And on that day I called my editors. I said, “I’m going to have to quote my colleagues anonymously concerned about our new colleague.”
That’s the first time you’ve had that conversation?
It’s the first time it’s happened because there hadn’t been a day like that before. When Corey Lewandowski was hired, he was there to be a commentator. Some people didn’t like it, but everybody knew what his job was.
Did you have a discussion then about “how are we going to cover this story about Corey Lewandowski who’s going to be on air?”
I mean, with my producer, but then we went ahead and did a nine-minute segment about it, so ... the complete autonomy. But with the case of Sarah there was confusion about what her job was going to be. Some people were saying that she was going to be the political director — not director, the political editor, which she’s not. She’s one of many editors with her role in covering 2020, but because of that confusion, there was all that concern, and so we published a story quoting CNN employees concerned about a CNN employee. And I was greatly relieved and proud that there was complete autonomy to do that.
Have you ever gotten a tap on the shoulder, or a note or a call or maybe something passed on indirectly that has come down? Your old, old boss John Martin I think had told me there were two different times that Jeff Bewkes had called down and said, I think one of them was the Malaysia plane or the poop cruise, one of the two, and said, “This is a little much.” But are you ever aware of any of that coming down your way saying at least just think about how you’re going to cover the Kevin Tsujihara story?
There was one time during the AT&T lawsuit, that government suing AT&T to block the deal, where one of my producers remarked, “We’re going to cover this more aggressively than we otherwise would.”
You’re going to lean into it.
We’re going to cover it more aggressively than we otherwise would because of the issue of the perception that is involving our parent company. And again, I was proud of that, right? We take it more seriously, cover it more aggressively, and that’s the only time I can think of that that’s happened.
The funny story, they day the deal was announced in 2016, October 2016, we’re about to go into breaking news coverage about the deal happening, I’m on the phone with Randall Stephenson and Jeff Bewkes interviewing them, and the breaking news music starts and I had to hang up on Randall and Bewkes.
Yeah. And I was like, I really hope they see that I’m on live TV, so they know why I hung up the phone. It was a little bit embarrassing, but this has happened in a lot of newsrooms in the last few years. There’s been cases that are a lot more interesting than CNN’s where you’re covering yourselves, and I think networks deserve credit for doing this the right way.
NBC went on the Today show and announced Matt Lauer’s firing. CBS reporters were investigating Les Moonves and covering the Moonves scandal in real time. And by the way, when a newsroom doesn’t cover itself well, do you think the audience notices? You think it’s visible to the viewers?
I think it’s great that they do it. I still think that I’m going to rely on someone outside your organization to do the best job. I just think it can’t be done ...
People should seek a lot of outlets —
Your old job at the Times, you guys did a great job covering Jayson Blair and things like that. But still, fundamentally, if I want a really good story about the inner workings of the New York Times, I’m not gonna expect the New York Times to deliver it to me.
Which speaks to the idea of a balanced news diet in all cases, about all things. But we should, in newsrooms, be as transparent as the people we cover. Let me put it this way. We expect the people we cover to be transparent. We expect the White House to be transparent, thus we should be transparent about ourselves as well.
It is funny when you call up a media person and say, “I’m reporting something something,” and then they act just like any other person who doesn’t wanna be covered. It’s just like a ... They’re human, so you ...
Some communicators are not great at communicating, right. Right.
Or don’t wanna be. They’re just regular human beings.
But I try to be self-aware about that myself, and I’m always there on the side of commenting when asked.
You’re very transparent.
Have you picked out a name for baby No. 2?
We have a name in mind and I’m not allowed to reveal it. I will give hint though, just for fun. Jamie won’t like this. My wife won’t like this. Here’s the hint… Whoa, should I give a hint?
Brian Stelter: Oh, people said no. Okay, I won’t give a hint. I’m really excited about the name, but I shouldn’t say. All right, I won’t give a hint.
Who has questions for Brian in this audience besides baby name No. 2? Come. There’s a mic here.
I’m too comfortable with you, Peter.
Two mics, maybe.
Wanting to give away everything.
Audience member: Hi. Good talk, guys. Brian, I wonder how you cover or address issues around false equivalency, thinking back to the way maybe Hillary’s emails were covered. And maybe now with Congresswoman Omar and how that compares to Steve King, it seems like there’s almost a conscious effort to equate two very different things. So, how do you address that in the newsroom?
Brian Stelter: I think it’s a constant conversation, individual conversations that happen every day, as opposed to a top-down view of this. And the reason I say that is ... I’ll take my Sunday show as an example. We start meeting on Wednesday. We start talking about what Sunday’s show’s gonna be, and it changes a hundred times. Thursday morning meeting, Friday morning meeting, Saturday morning meeting, to come with Sunday.
And in all those conversations, in all those meetings, we’re talking about how to frame a story, who to book, who to add to the show to create more balance and more interest. And I think it’s in those meetings, in those daily conversations, where you have to work hard to avoid those false equivalencies.
Even in something as simple as a banner that’s on-screen. I go through the banners at 9:00 am before our show and make sure every banner feels right and feels fair. Because even a banner, you put the wrong words up on screen for 10 seconds, and that’s gonna get ...
Do you know who agrees with you? Supposedly Donald Trump.
Donald Trump. He says, “These are ... People watch with the sound off.”
He cares a lot about the banners, that’s right.
The banners really matter.
It’s a screen grab. It’s gonna live forever. It’s gonna be used against you. It’s gonna be used unfairly against your organization. So, I think it’s in those daily conversations and in that obsessive checking before air. The reason I say it’s in the daily conversation is because it’s really easy to sit up here, “Damn that false equivalency. Don’t allow it to happen.” But really, it’s about thousands of individuals every day working hard to make sure that we don’t fall in those traps, you know.
Audience member: Brian, the media right now feels pumped because of ratings, and the subscriptions go up, and New York Times, and the Washington Post. What is your take on the time after Trump? Do you think that will stay the same, or do you think they will go back into those Dark Ages where nobody cared or paid for news?
Brian Stelter: I think there are two views of a post-Trump world. One view is, things are gonna go back to “normal.” I don’t subscribe to that view. I don’t know what normal means. And I don’t think there is such a thing as normal. I think he’s created such a stir that whatever comes next will also ... I don’t think there is a ...
Do you think people will be as engaged in CNN in a post-Trump world as they are right now?
I don’t buy into the argument that the Trump bump was as significant for cable news, or even for the New York Times, as others do. Here’s my own buy into it. Ratings may be up. I’m gonna make up numbers here. Make up numbers. They may be up 20 percent from 2015. Let’s just play that out. So, if you credit Trump with that, that suggests that a Hillary Clinton presidency would not be dramatic and interesting and newsworthy, and I disagree with that.
I assume that we would be in impeachment hearings if Clinton were president. I assume Republicans would have found reason to hold impeachment hearings by now. There would have been plenty of drama and news and excitement and interest and concern, and I think the president ...
It would be different though, right?
It’d be different, but it would be newsworthy.
She wouldn’t be threatening war via Twitter. There wouldn’t be that constant transgressive, “Can you believe that this thing happened?” That wouldn’t be there.
Different, but newsworthy. And there would have been ...
And there’d be less people worried about the future of the republic and/or the world, right? There’d still be a segment of them that would be, as there were with Obama and Fox viewers, but that would be the same.
There would have been a Clinton bump. Let’s say the ratings would have been up 10 percent as opposed to 20 percent for that given year or something. Television ratings, newspaper readership, a lot ...
My bosses may not agree with me on this, it’s just my personal view: I view it as an ocean. There’s a certain water level, and when a storm comes, the water rises. And when a storm fades, the water comes back down. But there’s still a basic level to the ocean that exists, and I’ve learned not to read too much into daily or weekly or monthly changes in that ocean level, because that’s how I view ...
How about people who sell subscriptions for a living?
We’re like a buoy in the middle of the ocean, bouncing up and down.
I like your metaphors. You’re good. The Times and Journal and New York Magazine and New Yorker, people who are in the business of selling subscriptions, they all believe there was a Trump bump and they’re very concerned about how they keep someone who signed up in the Fall of 2016 ...
There was, to some degree. I just don’t wanna overstate the Trump bump. We need to keep making it easier to pay for news so that those folks will stick around. I find it flabbergasting that in 2019 it’s still so hard to pay for certain news websites. And look, that’s partly on Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg and these other bosses, these companies, to make it easier to pay for news. And Tim Cook and the others.
We’ve got to keep making it easier to pay so that when I land in Austin, I can pay a dollar for the Austin American-Statesman and read it on my phone without the hassles and all the hoops.
Come on, Tim Apple. Get on it.
Yeah. Come on, Tim Apple!
Earl Bark: Hi. Earl Bark. Thanks for the session. Chris Christie has complained that Sunday morning talk shows during the Republican primary, that Trump was able to phone in, whereas everybody else had to show up. As president, he’ll get a lot of free media. But the way, CNN covered the rallies, all of that free media, I don’t think you guys have worn nearly enough sackcloth. I’ve seen some acknowledgement, but no atonement. What can we expect in terms of corrections?
Brian Stelter: I think there’s been a lot of individual soul-searching. I don’t know if there’s been collective soul-searching, but there’s been a lot of individual soul-searching. The head of CNN commented that there were too many rallies shown live, too much, too raw, from start to finish, during the 2016 election.
But I think the point about Trump calling into shows, I think, misplaces the blame a little bit. If Hillary Clinton had been willing to call in every day to CNN and MSNBC and Fox ... I think she’s been taken live on the phone as well. And I think it’s important the Democrats learn from that in the same way the Republican primary, they learned from that.
This isn’t a matter about logistics, right, it’s about entertainment value. It’s why Trump talked for two hours at CPAC, and a lot of that is widely distributed because he did all sorts of crazy stuff onstage. And if Hillary Clinton or whoever ends up in the ... Whoever the nominee is, probably isn’t gonna come out and hug the flag and do two hours of contemporaneous weirdness.
There’s a lot of ways ...
And it’s gonna be inherently less interesting.
There’s a lot of ways to engage an audience without cursing, or inflaming hatred of immigrants. There are a lot of ways to engage an audience, and-
But it’s just inherently less interesting. It’s like a physical equation, right? It’s just harder for you guys to push that stuff out because that’s crazy.
That’s not on news outlets. That’s on candidates. I think that ...
Yeah, but you’re not suggesting that they do crazy shit onstage to get airtime?
I’m saying that to be ... There’s a lot of ways to be newsworthy. That’s what I’m saying. There’s a lot of ways to be newsworthy, and Trump was newsworthy in a lot of ways. But Bernie Sanders could have found other ways to be newsworthy. Ted Cruz could have found other ways to be newsworthy without resorting to hatred of immigrants.
Audience member: These questions seem to be going in a thematic arc, and this is one more building that line of maybe false equivalency in that line. But I’m curious, particularly for female candidates in this next round of the presidential election, how we — and we being you, and us as consumers — get away from having four days of coverage around Amy Klobuchar having, eating salad with a comb as compared to Jared Kushner gets security clearance because his father-in-law ...
And the two are not the same, but the same amount of media attention was given to both. And particularly for a female candidate, it seems like this is heavily tilted towards that not likable enough, too aggressive, too pushy, bad boss, eats salad with a comb.
That salad story’s great.
Brian Stelter: The salad story is great, and that’s why a lot of websites made content about it, but I disagree that they were given equal amounts of attention. On Twitter, it can feel ... And I experience it every day. On Twitter, basically, it can feel like those stories are getting equal amounts of attention. But in newsrooms, 10 times as much attention goes to the Kushner story as it should.
Now, maybe in some lower-quality media outlets that are, either for partisan or for sensational reasons, focusing on silly stories about eating salads with combs, then there’s more attention to the salad. In real newsrooms that care about helping people feel more informed about their world, the Kushner story is a much bigger story. And I think, again, it’s about, how do we help folks get to those higher-quality news outlets? The future ...
From one guy to another, do you feel that the gender bias allegation about the way you guys cover female candidates is legitimate?
I think there is some legitimacy. I think there is real reason to be concerned about how female candidates are covered, and the public has to hold newsrooms accountable for that. And I think what we’ve seen in the past couple of months are great examples of members of the public and advocates holding newsrooms accountable when they feel that there’s a bias in the coverage. I think that we’re gonna need ... That’s vital. That’s why we need platforms other than Twitter to hear from the audience so that we’re hearing that feedback. I’m sorry?
Audience member: Just as a brief follow-up, what is an effective way to hold a newsroom accountable?
Brian Stelter: I’ll just say what I pay attention to. I read every email from a viewer. I read every ... The email’s the primary way that I hear from the audience, although Twitter and Facebook and those tools are also useful. I don’t wanna speak for every anchor and every journalist, but I think a lot of folks read those emails and take those emails to heart. I think a lot of folks read those columns, read those media critiques, from the Jack Shafers and Margaret Sullivans of the world, and take that content seriously.
And it gets to the daily discussions that happen in newsrooms about how to be better. That’s my impression. And just on a personal note, on my whiteboard at work, I started making a tally of the guests I’m having on Sunday. Male guests and female guests, because I think there is a skew sometimes, especially when you’re covering media, which is an industry that is led primarily by white men, that we make sure that we’re balanced on the air.
If we’re gonna be ... The next two years, I think, is largely gonna be a story about the Democrats challenging Trump, and likely about female candidates challenging the president. We’ve gotta make sure that we’re capturing that on television.
I have that whiteboard in my head.
For your sources?
No, for people I have on the podcast.
Sourcing is different to podcast. Like, this is ... Specifically, we’re doing this in public. And one of the things I keep bumping into is the people who are still running things most often are men. Do you find yourself as you’re programming a show that’s gonna be on TV, saying, “Let’s actively over-index. And even though we know so-and-so is gonna be great on TV, let’s make sure we get a woman”? Or, “By the way, let’s get a woman of color in place of that person”?
The short answer to get more questions is yes. Yes. Actively.
Thank you. Question?
Audience member: That’s a good segue. I’ve got two teenage daughters at home. We don’t have cable at home. They only consume what they want to see. So, how are you as a mainstream media outlet starting to adapt to the fact that there is not a safety or need-to-know outlet for this younger generation that’s coming up? How are you going to reach them, because they’re only right now listening to YouTube influencers?
Brian Stelter: Yeah. I think this is why the newsrooms and the CNNs of the world have to keep experimenting on the Instagrams and the Snapchats and the Twitters and the Facebooks and whatever those next are. There are people at CNN who are far more effective at this than I am, but that’s why we’ve got to keep being on these platforms. And not just be on the platforms, but experimenting and trying new ways, and to see what clicks.
I keep thinking about — and this is again, pie in the sky, big blue — is there gonna be a news environment in Fortnite? Is there gonna be a way in gaming ... But not literally.
Because they don’t want to be ... They don’t want want you there.
I understand. Not literally, but I ...
They’re not there for that.
Play that out, right. Play that out. In these virtual spaces, are there gonna be environments for news? If not literally Fortnite, then in other spaces like it. Then I go log on to my Xbox and I choose what to do. You know?
Yeah. My worry is, this is ...
These are the questions I’m asking my ...
Yeah, no. I think it’s worth asking. I think the answer is not gonna be reassuring for you or me and most people in this audience, because the idea that people wanna seek out news or need to have it is not shared by a very large population. And they’re happy to not get news because they’d rather ... I don’t wanna get into Fortnite. I mean, who should? But they’d rather spend their time doing that.
And unless you’re going to give it to them and somehow place it in front of them in a way that they can’t not look at it, they’re not gonna go seek it out. And that ...
And part of this answer is that news skews older as well. Yeah.
Depressing. One last question.
Audience member: Okay, so, I’ve been following — thank you for a good discussion — I’ve been following your show for a few years. I think one of the things that I really remember well was just after the election and you reflected on the role of the media, and you asked rhetorically, “Are we failing as national news outlets? Are we filling our roles? We are being too elitist? Are we being too bipartisan?”
And I’d like to hear your comments now. A year-and-a-half down the road, after he’s been elected, have you seen any change in your own network? Have you seen any change in the media landscape at large in the US?
Brian Stelter: Yeah. I think, unfortunately, sometimes the answers to these questions are yes to all the above, right? Because there’s more outstanding journalism being produced about the Trump presidency. There’s also more ... Pick your terms for it, whether it’s pro-Trump propaganda out there, whether it’s ... There’s a little bit of fearmongering going on from liberal partisan sites about the Trump presidency. There’s more of all of it.
And unfortunately, in this world there’s more of all of the above, and that makes the role of curators and of algorithms more important, to try to guide folks to the higher-quality stuff. What I would say directly about the last two years and whether the press is living up to the challenges in the moment, I look at polling that suggests the public wants and needs what we do right now.
And I’ll take a poll that shouldn’t exist, right? There are pollsters that ask a question that is a ridiculous question, but it’s an interesting question. “Who do you choose? The president or the press?” Now, that’s a ridiculous question, right? The press is unelected, not a branch of government, etc. But if you play out that question just for giggles, people choose the press. The majority of the public, when forced to make that choice, sides with the Fourth Estate. And I think that’s an interesting finding in this moment in time.
What’s the biggest mistake you made during the election?
Not taking Bernie Sanders more seriously.
Yeah. And so, how are you correcting for that?
I mean, I’m just, again, one small person in the conversation. By being more open-minded, not thinking I know what’s gonna happen. The mistake I think a lot of journalists made in the Democratic primary in 2016 is thinking Hillary was gonna get the nomination. And she did. But Bernie turned out to be more strong than a lot of people expected.
Does that mean you’re gonna make a point? Who’s the mayor? I wanna say Blagojevich, but that’s the wrong ...
Pete [Buttigieg]. Mayor Pete. I just say Pete.
Did I get it right?
He’s on CNN’s Town Hall on Sunday night.
But are you actively saying, “Look, the odds are very low he’s gonna get any traction, but I’m gonna treat him the same way I will Kamala Harris”?
Well, I think that’s a challenge for the leadership at CNN, and I think that’s being met. I was really excited to see that Mayor Pete, John Delaney, and Tulsi Gabbard are doing Town Halls on CNN this Sunday night here in Austin. The reason I’m excited to see that is because Delaney is polling very, very low despite going to every county in Iowa. And yet, he’s still getting an hour to have a Town Hall the same way that Kamala Harris did.
Same way in 2016, the Student Health Town Halls with the Green Party and Libertarian parties. That’s the right thing. We’re not there to be gatekeepers. We’re there to probe and question all the candidates, and that’s how it should be. I feel optimistic, compared to two years ago, about the role of the press in this country in the Trump age. Yes, there’s a poison. Yes, he’s inflicting a poison. A slow-acting poison, with his fake news rhetoric.
And some people have been infected by that poison. But most people have not. Most Americans know it’s BS. Most Americans are seeing through it. And most Americans want and need what the press is doing right now. And I think that’s a really healthy, positive thing. I’m trying to be positive at the end here. I think that’s a really healthy thing. It didn’t have to end up that way two years ago.
Let’s end on a positive note.
So, that’s a positive note for us to end on.
Thank you, Brian.
Thank you. Thank you, Peter.
Thank you for your positivity. Thanks to you guys.
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.